There’s a useful distinction that many marginalized people have made for centuries that many privileged people don’t understand: the difference between simple prejudice and institutionalized hate, or prejudice plus power.
I used to not understand that difference, and I assumed that racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other forms of oppression are relative and applicable to all—and that “reverse racism,” “reverse sexism,” “reverse heterosexism,” etc. are real. Today I don’t believe those things.
And that’s because, through listening to people in different marginalized groups as well as privileged allies, I came to realize that these -isms are all about power in those categories: racism is white supremacy, sexism is male supremacy, homophobia is heterosexual supremacy, transphobia is cisgender supremacy, and so on.
Of course, one of the ways that both simple prejudice and prejudice plus power get forcefully reproduced is through language. The difference between a white person saying the n-word (which I refuse to say) and a person of color using “cracker” to insult whites is not simply one of identity; it’s about power and privilege.
And to be clear, I’m not advocating name-calling, but I strongly believe that differences between words matter—and that you can’t simply equate words that support institutional power structures of domination and words that don’t.
A white person saying the n-word perpetuates racism/white supremacy, whereas a black person refiguring the use of that word for their own purposes is a form of resistance to centuries of racist oppression. A person of color calling a white person a “cracker,” while sometimes hurtful to whites, does not have the same impact because there’s no institutional power behind it. And for the record, I read that the term “cracker” arose as a reference to whites cracking a whip during this country’s 250 years of sanctioned racial slavery, so calling out a white person for perpetuating racism does not have the same impact as whites using the n-word.
A man using the c-word (which I also refuse to say) perpetuates sexism, whereas a woman calling a man a “douche” is sometimes considered a symbol of resistance because, as a feminist explained to me, douches are useless and sexist. You can’t equate someone perpetuating sexist oppression with calling out someone who is perpetuating that oppression.
That’s a big reason why I don’t believe reverse -isms exist—calling out men, whites, and other groups who have power in relation to gender, race, and so on often gets misconstrued as antiwhite, antimale, etc., and even when it might be antiwhite or antimale, that’s still not reflected in centuries of racist and sexist oppression.
Who’s using a word matters, but the person can also determine the impact that the word has when the person is using it. That’s a huge concept that took time for me to understand: impact matters far more than intent. As an Autistic person, my intent gets misread all the time, but I also need to take responsibility for the impact my language makes.
I’ll admit, when it comes to ableism and the oppression of disabled people—and, like many disabled people, I prefer identity-first language rather than person-first language, so I say that I am a “disabled person” and an “Autistic person” rather than a “person with disabilities” or a “person with Autism”—there are words that bother me and words that don’t.
The r-word (“r****ded”) bothered me growing up because I got it a lot, and to this day I still bristle when I hear it. It’s a great way to belittle someone’s perspectives and abilities to call them that word. So, as slang to insult people? I’d prefer it not to be used.
But honestly, words like “crazy” and “dumb,” though they privilege ability and can stigmatize the disabled, don’t bother me as much, possibly because I’ve heard them used so commonly that I am used to thinking of them as “normal,” though I’m willing to question that naturalization.
So, it’s up to all of us who have privilege—as whites, men, cis folks, heterosexuals, able-bodied people, wealthy people, Christians, and/or any other categories of privilege—to listen to the perspectives of the oppressed and take sides. No one group has members who will all agree on a word, but I think it’s fair to say that we should question the dominant culture’s views on language.
And no, caring about oppression and power is not “political correctness.” It’s the right thing to do.